Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Observations from Abidjan: A Time Machine to the Pre-Google Era

Digital Desert -- My relationship with technology has changed since I've been here.  This, despite having very decent internet connectivity.  Our house has wifi that extends to every room and works flawlessly 96% of the time.  I can maintain email relationships with friends, follow American basketball and European soccer, read my favorite websites, and write blog posts here.

But it's like being able to access this stuff from the Moon.  The internet provides very little added convenience to my daily life here in Abidjan.  Google Maps has a map for Abidjan, of course, but there is very little detail.  Unlike, say, Polson, Montana (population 4,488), where I can look up the exact location of the nearest UPS Store or the lone Mexican restaurant in town, and go down to street level and glance around, there is shockingly little information about Abidjan (population 1,929,000).  There are popular restaurants and bars here that simply don't exist on the internet.  Back in the U.S., Sheila and I like to laugh about the pre-internet days when you had to know exact directions beforehand in order to get somewhere, but Abidjan is a time machine back to that era.  If you make plans to meet a friend at a restaurant you've never been to, you need to ask him for directions as well.

What is more, most streets don't have names here, so there are no addresses.  Directions are given via to landmarks.  To take a taxi home, I tell the cabbie that I live "in Vallon (neighborhood) near the Ghanaian embassy (landmark)."  To go to work, I ask to go to "Plateau next to the Pullman Hotel."  Yesterday, Sheila wanted to go to an African dance class, so she had to call a friend who told her to tell the cab driver that it was near the pre-school in Cocody, and if he didn't know where the pre-school was, to say that it was not too far from radio station RTI.

Google is considerably less useful to daily life here.  At work, I was looking through our office's official Strategic Plan for the year, and one goal was to revise the SNFSCUS.  In the U.S., your first response is to google unknown acronyms, so I tried that.  Nothing.  So I googled "SNFSCUS Cote d'Ivoire."  Still nothing.  "SNFSCUS Cote d'Ivoire Ministere de la Santé."  Nope.  I ended up having to ask my colleague, Dom Dje, but then he couldn't remember either, so we spent 90 seconds trying to puzzle it out.  (Final answer: Stratégie National de Financement sur la Couverture Universelle de Santé.)

Last week, Sheila's iPhone started getting a message saying that her telephone service had been restricted.  In the U.S., the first step would be to google the problem and then to call customer service.  Here, a google search does not turn up any forums or other discussion of the problem, and when you call the customer service line, it says that all lines are busy and tells you to call back at some other time and then hangs up on you.  Our service provider's offices are closed from noon Saturday until Monday morning, so we had to wait until Monday to head over to the Orange office, wait in line and then ask in person how to fix the problem.

If there is one bright side to living in a technological backwater, it's that I've completely kicked my Twitter addiction since arriving here.

Weather in Abidjan -- The weather here is so boringly consistent that people don't even make small talk about the weather.